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People Aware, People Unaware

One of the best course introductions we have made over the last couple of years is Photography 1: People and Place. We commissioned the course because our photography course leaders told us that the level 2 Social Documentary course was often too challenging for students who had perhaps avoided people photography in their level one work. I’ve learned that sporting events are good places to build your confidence when taking people unaware shots. People completely absorbed in the challenge do not have the spare mental capacity to wonder why you are photographing them and if they do they often just accept it as part of competing. I am as nervous as anyone in these situations but I know that practicing has made it easier for me to frame shots and focus. Since I have a been a keen cyclist since a child, I knew when the National Hill Climb Championships came to Sheffield last year that there would be opportunities to capture shots of total concentration. I also knew there would be suffering, which could be photographed without any of the moral dilemmas which have featured in a number of recent discussions in the student forums (and which will no doubt be a feature of the trip we are making to the Tate Modern on Saturday).
Photographing self inflicted pain is, after all, a staple of sports photography. The absolute master of this for competitive cycling is, and has been for many years, Graham Watson whose images of professional cycling show both an ability to capture telling portraits and perfect composition
But there are other genres of cycling photography. One of the more recent has been promoted heavily by the magazine Rouleur and blogs such as Embrocation which focus on the almost fetishistic relationship between cyclists, their bodies, their clothing and equipment. A leading exponent of this approach is Stefan Rohner whose work covers editorial, social documentary and advertising. In a consumer society, the relationship between an individual and their artifacts increasing defines them and their relationships with others. To argue the case by taking an extreme counter-example, Richard Avedon’s In The American West is rightly a classic, but by stripping away the evidence of the subject’s environment he forces us to relate to them, rather than allowing us to see how they relate to each other.
On a day when it seems most of my colleagues are focused on another sporting event in South Africa, I’m pleased to see that Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler’s book, Bicycle Portraits – everyday South Africans and their bicycles has achieved the necessary funding to proceed. It is another example of another genre, which might be rather paradoxically called the ‘the posed ethnographic study’ and I write these words I can hear Peter Haveland, our visual studies course leader, whispering in my ear ‘define everyday’. Another day maybe.

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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2 thoughts on “People Aware, People Unaware

  • I would suggest that when one makes an image of something it is immediately taken out of the ‘everyday’ by which I suspect Engelbrecht and Grobler mean ‘nothing special. I detect an irony here; looking at the video I imagine that they may well be making the point that everything, especially the people they have photographed and their bikes is special in some way. The effect of social documentary photography, sports photography, street photography and the rest, is to elevate the example chosen above the norm even while trying to represent a general issue. Think of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”. It took Florence Owens Thompson out of the ‘everyday’ and made her and her family the icon of the Great Depression. The image can become almost an ideology in itself by which I mean that the subject of the image, rather than creating the idea in the viewer, is created by the ideas already held by the viewer.
    Each of the two images illustrating Gareth’s piece imply a narrative but what that narrative is will depend on your views at least as much as the purpose of the photographers. But now they have been photographed, neither are ‘everyday’ any more.

  • I can see where Peter is coming from with the argument that once something is photographed, it is no longer ‘everyday’. I think there is something transformative that happens when we make pictures of our world and the people in it; we see, out of context, 2 dimensional representations of what was going on, and we can look again. When we look again, we enjoy the privilege of hindsight too. This looking again allows us to build narratives, to make sense of what happened, to reconsider. It allows us to see details we did not spot before; it allows us, if we like, to jusxtapose images with each other and arrange them in a new narrative (as Gareth does in his blogpost, bringing together several different events and showing a relationship between them). I have seen how some photographers, e.g. Martin Parr, take photographs of the everyday and manage to exoticsie them (often through processing); his images often make the familiar seem strange. I am interested in how photography shows us things we did not see before – and how this impacts on the way we see our everyday lives. I believe photography can change the way we see our world and our place within it (and I think that is why it can be addictive!).

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